Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Part of the American Civil War
Lincoln assassination slide c1900 - Restoration.jpg
LocationFord's Theatre, Washington, D.C.
DateApril 14, 1865; 154 years ago (1865-04-14)
10:15 p.m.
Attack type
  • Political assassination
  • shooting
  • stabbing
DeathsAbraham Lincoln (died April 15, 1865 at 7:22 a.m. from his injuries)
Non-fatal injuries
PerpetratorsJohn Wilkes Booth and co-conspirators
MotiveRevenge for the Confederate States

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated by well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.Shot in the head as he watched the play,[2] Lincoln died the following day at 7:22 am, in the Petersen House opposite the theater.[3] He was the first U.S. president to be assassinated,[4] and Lincoln's funeral and burial marked an extended period of national mourning.

Occurring near the end of the American Civil War, the assassination was part of a larger conspiracy intended by Booth to revive the Confederate cause by eliminating the three most important officials of the United States government.Conspirators Lewis Powell and David Herold were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson.Beyond Lincoln's death, the plot failed: Seward was only wounded and Johnson's would-be attacker lost his nerve. After a dramatic initial escape, Booth was killed at the climax of a 12-day manhunt. Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were later hanged for their roles in the conspiracy.


Abandoned plan to kidnap Lincoln

The last known high-quality image of Lincoln, taken on the White House balcony, March 6, 1865
The Surratt house
Booth was present as Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address a month before the assassination.

John Wilkes Booth, born in Maryland into a family of prominent stage actors, had by the time of the assassination become a famous actor and national celebrity in his own right. He was also an outspoken Confederate sympathizer; in late 1860 he was initiated in the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore.[5]:67

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union armies, suspended the exchange of prisoners of war with the Confederate Army[6] to increase pressure on the manpower-starved South. Booth conceived a plan to kidnap Lincoln in order to blackmail the North into resuming prisoner exchanges,[7]:130–4 and recruited Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell (also known as "Lewis Paine"), and John Surratt to help him. Surratt's mother, Mary Surratt, left her tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland, and moved to a house in Washington, D.C., where Booth became a frequent visitor.

While Booth and Lincoln were not personally acquainted, Lincoln had seen Booth at Ford's in 1863.[8]:419[9][10] After the assassination, actor Frank Mordaunt wrote that Lincoln admired Booth, whom Lincoln had repeatedly invited (without success) to visit the White House.[11]:325–326 Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, writing in his diary afterwards: "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!"[7]:174,437n.41

On March 17, Booth and the other conspirators planned to abduct Lincoln as he returned from a play at Campbell Military Hospital. But Lincoln did not go to the play, instead attending a ceremony at the National Hotel;[7]:185 Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time and, had he not gone to the hospital for the abortive kidnap attempt, might have been able to attack Lincoln at the hotel.[7]:185-6,439n17[12]:25

Meanwhile, the Confederacy was collapsing. On April 3, Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, fell to the Union Army. On April 9 the General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to the Commanding General of the United States Army Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials had fled. But Booth continued to believe in the Confederate cause and sought a way to salvage it.[13]:728


There are various theories about Booth's motivations. In a letter to his mother, he wrote of his desire to avenge the South.[14] Doris Kearns Goodwin has endorsed the idea that another factor was Booth's rivalry with his well-known older brother, actor Edwin Booth, who was a loyal Unionist.[15] David S. Reynolds believes Booth greatly admired the abolitionist John Brown;[16] Booth's sister Asia Booth Clarke quoted him as saying: "John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the century!"[16][17] On April 11, Booth attended Lincoln's speech at the White House in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks;[18] Booth said "That means nigger citizenship ... That is the last speech he will ever give." He urged Lewis Powell to shoot Lincoln on the spot, and when Powell refused for fear of the crowd, said to David Herold, "By God, I'll put him through."[19][8]:91

Lincoln's premonitions

According to Ward Hill Lamon, three days before his death Lincoln related a dream in which he wandered the White House searching for the source of mournful sounds:

I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. "Who is dead in the White House?" I demanded of one of the soldiers, "The President," was his answer; "he was killed by an assassin."[20]

For months Lincoln had looked pale and haggard, but on the morning of the assassination he told people how happy he was. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln felt such talk could bring bad luck.[21]:346 Lincoln told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a "singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore", and that he'd had the same dream before "nearly every great and important event of the War" such as the victories at Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg and Vicksburg.[22]

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